From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
10.1 (1990): 87-92.
Copyright © 1990, The Cervantes Society of America
the Second of England took for his mistress Rosamond Clifford, a woman of
extraordinary beauty and the daughter of Knight Henry Clifford. In order
to keep her concealed from Queen Eleanor, the king placed Rosamond in a palace
at Woodstock which was surrounded by a maze. During a time when Henry was
away from England, the jealous and vengeful queen managed to make her way
through the maze and forced Rosamond to choose between receiving the fatal
blow of a dagger and drinking a bowl of poison. Rosamond died from the latter
and was buried in the Godstow Nunnery. And as a punishment for her criminal
act, Henry kept Eleanor imprisoned up until the end of his reign.
What I have recounted here is the general legend that has evolved over the illicit love affair of Fair Rosamond and King Henry. The extent to which this legend is true has never been completely determined. Yet some of the early chroniclers were able to find historical evidence to support at least the following: (1) Rosamond was indeed King Henry's mistress and (2) her burial took place at Godstow.
Over the centuries the legendary tale of Rosamond Clifford has greatly appealed to the literary imagination. Numerous
is a paper from a symposium on Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda,
as is explained in the Foreward of this issue of
treatments of this popular story can be found in chronicles, narrative poems,
works of romance prose fiction, chapbooks, novels, short stories, operas,
and plays. Authors have continuously revitalized the legend by altering a
particular feature or set of features. Some of the innovations have included,
for example, adding more scenes, creating different versions of Rosamond's
tragic death, introducing new characters, such as the rival lover, and alluding
more to the political and religious climate of the
One of the most striking departures from the more traditional versions of the Rosamond story appears in Cervantes' Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda. How much Cervantes actually knew about this figure is a matter of speculation. In any event, he dramatically altered the legendary material within the context of his Christian romance. An examination of the transformations which Rosamond Clifford undergoes in Persiles will shed further light on the author's exemplary vision of mankind, in which characters essentially appear as archetypal figures making their pilgrimage through the lower and upper worlds of romance.2
It is significant that Rosamunda appears in the sequence of adventures in the North, a region which Cervantes markedly associates with the motifs of darkness, separation, death, and barbarity.3 In Chapters XII and XIII of Book One, the protagonists and their companions meet up with a ship carrying a group of people which includes the enchained pair of Rosamunda and Clodio, the slanderous poet. The occupants of the ship join the wandering heroes, and at a later point during one of their group conversations in Chapter XIV, Clodio gives an account of the courtesan's life. We learn that not only was Rosamunda the mistress of King Henry but that she was also an extremely powerful yet detrimental figure in the political sphere (Esta mandó al rey y por añadidura a todo el reino; puso leyes, quitó leyes, levantó caídos viciosos y derribó levantados
Virgil B. Heltzel, Fair Rosamond: A Study of the Development of a Literary
Theme (Evanston: Northwestern U Studies, 1947). Heltzel discusses in
detail the creation of the Rosamond legend and its abundant treatment in
2 For more on the exemplary aspects of Persiles, see Alban K. Forcione, Cervantes' Christian Romance (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972). And for a more general study of the conventions and themes of romance fiction, see Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard UP 1976).
3 Forcione 121.
virtuosos).4 Clodio furthermore goes
on to describe how Rosamunda's corrupt acts along with his own slanderous
talk eventually led them to their downfalls, as the king had them enchained
together and banished for life from England. We should also add that in
subsequent chapters in Book One, Cervantes will introduce another innovative
set of incidents to Rosamond's story: a temptation scene which results in
the suicidal death of the rejected, lustful schemer quite a change
from the conventional portrayal of her death as a fatal stabbing or
Cervantes' anachronistic placement of Rosamunda in the sixteenth century may appear to some extent as a disturbing element, in that it violates the romance convention of maintaining plausibility. Yet interestingly enough, Renaissance literary theorists did actually suggest that authors take the liberty to use material from medieval history in their works because their reading audiences generally knew very little about it. One might, however, best explain this inconsistency by arguing that in Persiles, Rosamunda is in essence a character of a timeless, universal dimension, as she serves a fundamental allegorical purpose.5
With the exception of Clodio, perhaps no other character in Persiles is more manifestly emblematic than Rosamunda, a telling embodiment of lust and its powers of exploitation.6 Such a portrayal of Rosamunda clearly represents a deviation from the mode in which she has most often been depicted in literature as a beautiful yet much less domineering figure who becomes a tragic victim.7
Cervantes allows us the opportunity to observe the lustful courtesan in action in the climactic scene where she attempts to seduce Antonio when they are alone together in the wilderness. The entire scene may be read as an allegorical contest between
de Cervantes, Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, ed. J. B. Avalle-Arce
(Madrid: Castalia, 1969) 118. All subsequent page references to the
Persiles are to this edition.
5 Forcione 121.
6 See Forcione' s Cervantes and the Mystery of Lawlessness: A Study of El casamiento engañoso y El coloquio de los perros (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984) 202, note 24.
7 As Heltzel states: One is inclined to surmise that her beauty and her position as the unfortunate victim of a royal lover have somehow given her a sort of sanctity and inviolability in the eyes of all writers who have told her story (127).
lust and chastity, in which the latter is forcefully
triumphant.8 It should be noted that Rosamunda
is presented here not only in a state of moral decadence but also in one
of physical decay (like a withering rose). As she states to Antonio: No
mires que ya a mi belleza la marchita el rigor de la edad, ligera siempre,
sino considera en mí a la que fue Rosamunda, domadora de las cervices
de los reyes y de la libertad de los más esentos hombres (141-42).
Rosamunda's fading beauty and failed attempt to seduce Antonio may be seen
as a powerful foreshadowing of her imminent death.
At this point it would be worthwhile to draw a comparison between Rosamunda and Transila, her marked female counterpart in the Persiles. Transila has fled her native land because she boldly opposes its savage custom which permits the relatives of the groom to deflower the bride on the wedding day. Rosamunda, on the other hand, firmly upholds this barbarous practice. In a speech to Transila, the courtesan speaks of the importance of experience, as she employs the images of a well-trained horse and an experienced sailor to illustrate her point:
Haste quejado . . . señora doncella, de la bárbara costumbre de los de tu ciudad, como si lo fuera aliviar el trabajo a los menesterosos y quitar la carga a los flacos; sí que no es error, por bueno que sea un caballo, pasearle la carrera primero que se ponga en él, ni va contra la honestidad el uso y costumbre si en él no se pierde la honra, y se tiene por acertado lo que no lo parece; sí que mejor gobernará el timón de una nave el que hubiese sido marinero, que no el que sale de las escuelas de la tierra para ser piloto: la esperiencia en todas las cosas es la mejor maestra de las artes, y así, mejor te fuera entrar esperimentada en la compañía de tu esposo, que rústica e inculta (117).
In short, both Rosamunda and Transila are portrayed as highly audacious and
self-assertive female figures, yet in very diverse, opposing
At the same time, Cervantes greatly draws attention to Rosamunda's emblematic pose through her connection with Clodio. His presentation of these symbolic characters sharply recalls Erasmus' figurative treatment of the association of lust and slander
Christian Romance 121-22.
9 For more on the comparison of Rosamunda and Transila, see Forcione, Christian Romance 120-22.
and its disastrous effects in Lingua. The similarity between the two
texts is particularly evident in such details as the chain bonding of characters
and the arrow piercing the
It can also be said that the physical enchainment of Rosamunda and Clodio is parallel to another type of bondage, that is, the way in which each character closely resembles the other by sharing his or her sinful trait. Rosamunda is just as quick with the tongue as Clodio. When the pair are first brought over to the protagonists' ship, they are constantly making slanderous remarks about each other. We might also recall that in the seduction scene Antonio condemns Rosamunda for her offensive speech: ¡Tarázate la lengua, sierpe maldita, no pronuncies con deshonestas palabras lo que tienes escondido en tus deshonestos deseos! (142). And in Book Two, Clodio likewise reveals his lustful nature in an attempt to snare Auristela. The combination of lust and slander is also present in the dramatic scene of Clodio's death.11 The slanderous poet is accidentally shot in the tongue by Antonio's arrow when he enters the room in which the witch Cenotia is trying to seduce Antonio.
The pairing of Rosamunda and Clodio may furthermore be viewed in terms of a grotesque travesty of Auristela and Periandro, the exemplary Christian couple. Through creating such a negative example of the union between man and woman, Cervantes all the more underscores the importance of love, charity, and marriage for the salvation of the soul and the well-being of the state.
As a final point, I would like to consider briefly Rosamunda in her relation to another major Cervantine spokesperson for the corporeal realm of experience: Sancho Panza. Cervantes' squire is a striking representation of the medieval and Renaissance carnival spirit, a spirit which conveys a sense of ambivalence toward the body. While Sancho's feasting, mock-role playing, frequently depicted bodily functions, and engagement in earthy, bodily material discourse can be seen in terms of a mockery of the values, institutions, and constraints of official society, they at the same time constitute a celebration of the body and bodily life. Moreover, Cervantes' presentation of the squire in certain carnivalesque scenes is intimately linked to his development of
Mystery of Lawlessness 224, note 63.
11 Ruth El Saffar, Beyond Fiction: The Recovery of the Feminine in the Novels of Cervantes (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, England: U of California P, 1984) 144.
the Christian humanist themes of friendship, simplicity, and
goodwill.12 In the romance setting of the
Persiles, on the other hand, we witness an entirely different view
of the body in the author's conception of Rosamond Clifford. This figure
projects a powerful image of the destructive powers of the flesh, as her
excessive lustful behavior leads to catastrophic circumstances. Such a dark
vision of the corporeal sphere was of course very much in vogue during the
period of the Counter-Reformation.
In conclusion, Persiles presented Cervantes with an ideal context for rendering a highly innovative and imaginative approach to the legend of Rosamond Clifford. In adapting the story within the exemplary framework of his Christian romance, he created a tellingly negative version of King Henry's mistress, as he sharply focused the reader's attention on the courtesan's perverse character, punishment, and suicide.
12 For an introduction to the carnivalesque and its literary forms, as well as for some general remarks on Sancho's popular festive dimension, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hèléne Iswolsky (1968, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984). In recent years, there have appeared several more detailed studies of the squire and his relation to carnivalesque culture. See, for example, Agustín Redondo, Tradición carnavalesca y creación literaria del personaje de Sancho Panza al episodio de la ínsula Barataria en el Quijote, Bulletin Hispanique 80 (1978): 39-70; Marilyn Stewart's references to various instances in which Sancho brings the plot down to the corporeal level in certain inn scenes in Part One in her article Carnival and Don Quixote: The Folk Tradition of Comedy, The Terrain of Comedy, ed. Louise Cowan (Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984) 143-62; Forcione's examination of the carnivalesque banquet colloquy between Sancho and Tomé Cecial (Mystery of Lawlessness 204-13); and my study of the way in which Cervantes takes the carnival spirit in the direction of the modern novel through his development of the squire's transgressive, popular festive discourse (Cervantes and the Carnival Spirit, diss., Stanford U, 1989).
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